Is it Normal Childhood Fears or is it an Anxiety Disorder?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Fear is not necessarily a bad thing. It helps us stay focused and alert to danger. We instill fear into our children from the time they begin to walk. "Don't touch the stove, it is hot!" and "Don't cross the street, you could get hit by a car!" or "Don't talk to strangers."  We use fear to protect our children from the dangers of the world.

    We want our children to worry about doing well on upcoming tests or projects. We hope by punishing them when they don't do well, it will motivate them to study hard. We instill the fear of being punished as motivation for excelling in school.

    Normal Childhood Fears

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    Children worry, they become scared of monsters under their bed and burglars in the night. They suddenly can't walk three feet away from us without screaming in fear. No matter how much a parent tries to raise a happy, well-adjusted child, fears creep in. So what is normal? How is a parent to know if fears are a part of childhood or a symptom of an anxiety disorder?

    According to Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., founder of The Children's Center for OCD and Anxiety, the following are some normal childhood fears:


    Even babies exhibit signs of fear. Between the ages of 6 and 9 months, many babies will be fretful or cry when mom or dad leave the room or if they are handed to somone unfamiliar .

    Early Childhood

    Separation anxiety appears as early as 6 months and can last for several years. Children become scared when their security, mom or dad, are not around. During this age, they can also develop phobias, such as the fear of spiders or dogs. Some children need to sleep with the light on, are afraid of monsters under the bed.

    Elementary Age

    By elementary age, most children have resolved their fear of being separated from their parents, at least for short periods of time, or during the school day. As they learn about the dangers of the outside world, though, they may worry about someone stealing them, burglars, or thunderstorms.

    Pre-Teen Years

    During this time, children start to worry about getting along with their peers, become shy in social situations, worry about their grades or living up to their parent's expectations.

    Teen Years

    Teens usually become overly sensitive about social acceptance. Often, their self-image is related to how they are viewed by friends or classmates.

    When to Seek Help

    Anxiety disorders are not determined by what a child worries about, but by the amount of worry and how much it interferes with daily life. For example, your teen might worry about social situations, which is a common teen concern. But if he worries to the point he avoids social interaction, finds it hard to even raise his hand in class or is showing signs of depression because of his fears, it may be time to seek outside help.

    Some guidelines for when to seek help for your child's anxiety:

    • Fears are excessive for insignificant events.
    • Anxiety is accompanied by physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches or insomnia.
    • Symptoms of depression, such as insomnia or sleeping more than normal, loss of appetite, or loss of enjoyment in activities they once enjoyed.
    • Avoiding activities that provoke anxiety, including not wanting to go to school or participate in school activities
    • Easily agitated or over-excited when stressed
    • Becomes anxious days or weeks prior to event
    • Perfectionism, overly self-critical
    • Overly worried that others are not happy with him

    If a parent's attempts to console or reassure a child do not work, this can also be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

    If you are concerned about your child and feel his worrying is interfering with his daily activities or ability to succeed in school, start with your family physician. Your doctor should rule out any physical causes and if needed, refer your child to a mental health professional for an evaluation.


Published On: August 24, 2010